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Status Update: Backlogged Thoughts and Journal Snippets from Malaysia, Vietnam, and China

Xin chào! 你好! It’s been awhile—I’ll take the fat slice of the responsibility pie, but some blame must go to the People’s Republic of China for blocking access to my blog! And in that tone, I begin what is bound to be a status update of mixed feelings.


My last post was over a month ago, which begs the question just what the hell was I doing? I’m going to summarize in a piteously brief manner.

My first stop, as mentioned in my last update, was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My immediate surroundings became decidedly more modern, albeit in a wholly Asian fashion. Modernity asserts itself in KL from the spinning doorways of skyscrapers, futurama malls and techno clubs, but inside these gleaming towers and complexes you’ll be sure to find a friendly paperless spray toilet—and maybe even a good ol’ squat toilet or two. The city is also very culturally diverse with its Skittled mix of native Malays, Indians, Arabs, Chinese, and more than a handful of Westerners [1]. Most of my exposure to KL was through the looking glass of Chinese Malaysians, namely my local contact ‘Kitty’ and her gracious friends J (my actual host) and E.

Honestly, I was quite a bore in Malaysia. My intention was to rest and drum up a reality check from vacation-style wonder-wandering in Thailand. So I restrung my guitar, bought some much needed clothing items, washed the corrosive Andaman sea water from all my climbing gear, filled in some gaps in my journal, slept a lot, and logged some computer time in a handful of coffee shops. Not much else happened, likely because I spent the rest of my time wandering through mega malls with sales and service industry staff that probably rival the general population of most Midwestern towns. This is not to say that KL was not without intrigue: a fun ‘hike’ up to the monkey-infested Batu Caves, a gratuitous sampling of Malaysia’s varied ethnic cuisine, and a handful of cultural collisions—some enlightening and thoughtful, some comical and rather embarrassing (sorry J).

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From KL I flew to Hanoi, Vietnam to stay with Jan, a South African that I met in Thailand. I recall being slightly anxious on the plane, worrying that perhaps my side trip to Malaysia had dulled my adventuring spirit. [Hindsighted ridicule] Yeah, right. [end jab] Vietnam is stimulating enough to sharpen even the most jaded globetrotter. If you’re doubtful, then do as I did: fly into Hanoi and have the airport taxi drop you off right in the middle of the whirring neon cacophony of Old Quarter. Had I not been immediately rescued by Jan, I believe that I would have been whisked away once again into the overstimulating blur of backpacker life.

My Hanoi sojourn would prove to be, instead, another taste of expat life. I stayed near the north end of Tây Hồ (West Lake) as the glorified house guest of Jan and five other South Africans, and engaged in typical expat life events such as trying to cook familiar foods with unfamiliar ingredients (and only one pan) and playing charades with local shopkeepers. Hell, I even helped teach an English lesson at a Vietnamese middle school—properly expatriatic, if there is such a sentiment.

Expat slacker session. Always draws a crowd.

Expat slacker session. Always draws a crowd.

The rest of Hanoi largely blurs together for me—I was entirely overstimulated (for many reasons) for most of the stay. In retrospect, what Hanoi lacked was the typical mundanity of the in-between. Even the commutes were arousing. Traffic in Hanoi is a constant weaving sliding leaning dodging [holy sh*t!] braking swerving [close call!] accelerating bionic flow of mostly motorbikes and bicycles, which swarm like bees around the larger vehicles. [Tangent ripped from journal] Automobiles and buses barely manage on the wide highways; on the two-way streets, which amble river-like past restaurants, cafes, Bia Hơis, and greasy mechanic shops, and in the narrow twisting Old Quarter alleys choked with grocer carts and bamboo hat peddlers and dazed tourists, these luckless vehicles must painfully inch their way through the two-wheeled swarm like irritated buffalo [2]. [end tangent] Much like a bee, one feels hyper-alert and vulnerable on a motorbike, frantically buzzing around in dangerously close proximity with other insectizens, until—at last, and likely just in time—one lands abruptly and sits catching breaths as the human swarm continues to rage on all sides. Indeed some of my favorite moments in Hanoi blend heady conversations on the plastic seats of Bia Hois and Kem Zois with the equally heady motorbike ride to said places..and ah! The joy of riding like a manic vigilante around a completely deserted metropolitan area, thanks to Hanoi’s sharp 11pm curfew! All in all, I fondly remember—and occasionally miss—the Vietnamese, and the [buzzing, laughing, yelling] buzzsaw cacophony of their voices, and the simple elegance of their food—Phở, Bún chả, and Bánh mì and the rest. And most of all, I miss the kinship of living with a tight ‘family’ of expats in a collidingly small and charmingly eclectic expat community. Isle of Misfit Toys, for sure.

Something happened to my Hanoi photos---I can't find most of them.  I will post a video of racing through Hanoi traffic, and others, hopefully soon.

Something happened to my Hanoi photos—I can’t find most of them. I will post a video of racing through Hanoi traffic, and others, hopefully soon.

On April 7th, 2014, with a measure of wistfulness and a hurried toast, I said goodbye to Jan and chaotic Hanoi and charming Vietnam, and boarded a night train to….

Holy-f***ing-China. For proper culture shock, mix one part ‘zero preparation’ with two parts ‘vacation brain’ and chug feverishly as you cross the border into Guangxi province at 2am. At 9am, you, brave and foolish Westerner, will arrive in the farthest civilized place from Kansas imaginable. Say goodbye to English, and to welcoming smiles and friendly hellos at that. Have a nice bitter laugh over the weak smattering of Pinyin that you proudly amassed in Chinese 100, because nobody uses f***ing Pinyin here [3]. Grit your teeth and say hello to the protocol-or-scram attitude, the throat-tickling air. Brace yourself as fellow passengers literally shove you onto metro trains so they can also board. Accept these harsh realities, and be rewarded with the gems of China expat life, where you can feast yourself into a comatose state for pennies, and where you can literally be a rockstar and model with virtually no qualifications other than your foreignness and ability to breath air.

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My stay in China was bipolarly intense. There were moments when I was treated like a prince, and others where I was disdained like a plague rat. In one moment, I was riding high on the anticipation of a memorable climbing trip to Yangshuo; in the next, I was plunging into the frantic despair of losing my passport wallet. It was by such grim fate that I entered the city of Guangzhou as a tired, dirty, money-less, and largely unidentifiable foreigner. Several days passed before I could secure a Western Union rescue fund from my family, so I further enjoyed the sharpening thoughts of sleeping on the streets and stealing food from roadside vendors. But, I met some genuine friends in these grim circumstances, and some of the most unexpectedly comical charity that I’ve ever received. My proximity to Chinese culture and kinship was strongest when I was personally at my weakest. And through all of this bipolarity, I found China to be aggravating and amusing, shocking in its surprises and similarities, and just plain enervating. Some day, I hope to give it a second chance..with more preparation, and a closer eye on my personal effects.

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[Returning to the present moment,] 4am, and I’m about six hours away from leaving China and jetting to South Korea. I’ve determine to stay awake until my flight because one of my new friends wants a goodbye toast before I leave, but he doesn’t finish work until 5am. My nerves are firing a bit slowly, but I am feeling quite alert. I am aware, on the one hand, that I am more in tune with the privilege and merit of my travels than I was a month ago, and to that I say 谢谢,中国。 I am also aware that I am staying in a hotel for the first time of this trip; I write it off as much needed R&R, but this is a thin veil for what is clearly a tired retreat from the crowds, smog, and culture shock of China. Bipolarity continues.

I am also aware that I am getting tired—not just 4am tired, but a deeper sort of weariness that sits on my shoulders and the section of brain between the backs of my ears. My senses have been taxed. I reflect, well, you deserve to be tired. You’ve experienced quite a lot in the past four months. Too much? Perhaps not too much, but rather too rapidly, particularly in the past month and a half:

I’ve negotiated a laundry deal via a twenty minute conversation held entirely on two separate windows of Google translate.
I’ve ballroom danced in a Vietnamese coffee shop with the owner, a smirking woman named Chau of about forty years whose jet black eyes leap the language barrier.
While on the subject, I’ve shaken a leg in some starkly varied places: everywhere from Hanoi clubs walled with corrugated metal and whitewashed plaster; to glitzy chromed out Chinese clubs, whose long entranceways—lined with mirrors and strung with glittering faux diamonds—will spill you onto streets lined with VIP-parked Ferraris and Mazeratis [note: the Hanoi clubs are more fun].
I picked up some Afrikaans phrases and an obnoxiously persistent Australian accent; the former sneak their way into an occasional exclamatory remark, the latter has thankfully passed as quickly as it came.
I’ve witnessed the reverently preserved body of a national hero, the figurehead of the only defeat in US military history. He pickles well.
I’ve learned a passable amount of Chinese drinking games, and an embarrassingly small collection of Chinese characters.
I’ve climbed pockety limestone behind a cow pasture in the Guangxi countryside.
I’ve watched a variety show consisting of a sword-wielding strongman and decidedly racist boxing match through leopard print lens-less glasses at a Chinese club fittingly named ‘Blanco,’ whilst enjoying free-for-foreigners booze and bar food.
I’ve slept in a very shady motel for free, thanks to the owner who calls me his brother and whose English improves with his beer intake.

5am. A WeChat message stirs on my cellphone; it vibrates irritably against the table as though protesting its travel sores (five different SIM cards and drops on all manner of terrain). I am off to say goodbye to my Chinese friends and to China, for now. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be in South Korea. Bye!


Footnotes for the Curious Reader

[1] ‘Skittled’ is a ridiculous term, but not chosen entirely out of whimsy. It is used in the context of ‘mixing bowl’ as opposed to ‘melting pot,’ in reference to some of the very deep-seated cultural tensions I witnessed in KL (I will not go into them here, for brevity’s sake). So, taste the rainbow, my friend.

[2] Bia hơi is the generalized name of an establishment that serves maybe the cheapest draft beer in the world. Some of these ‘bars’ are basically a couple kegs in the empty first floor garage of the manager’s home, with plastic stools serving as chairs and tables. The beer is cheap, the conversation loud and fun..and the bathroom occasionally just a drain in the upstairs apartment bathroom.

[3]Admittedly, I was nowhere near the tourist track in China. It is likely that travel in Beijing and Shanghai and such places is much kinder for Westerners. I hope to return to China soon. It is a truly intriguing country; all that one could see and experience there should not be ruined by one instance of a stolen passport wallet.


Status Update: Surfacing for Shirts and Strings

Right then. It’s been about three weeks since my last post: a regrettably blasé draft of a song about my un-regrettably adrenal motorbike ride from Chiang Mai to Pai. I’ve begun to receive a few hey-Alice-how’s-the-view messages, which has coaxed me out of the rabbit hole long enough to write a status update. Wait, let me get coffee, [short pause] and a cookie [shorter pause]. OK, now I’m ready.

Sunday, March 23nd 2014—three restful days have passed since my long-delayed departure from Thailand. Anything but laziness kept me captive in the Kingdom of Smiles [and Scams]. As primary evidence, consider the following two opportunities:

  • Opportunity 1: Climbing in Good Company A very attractive Swiss rock climber and aspiring yoga teacher suggests that I join her in Thakhet, Laos for some breathtaking climbing and related adventures.
  • Opportunity 2: Ruined Temple Run Two near and dear friends from back in the States invite me to join them in Cambodia for the Siem Reap/Angkor Wat tour. Bummed I missed this one—familiar faces would’ve been a really nice change of pace.

Entonces, behold the power of Thailand.

My second month in the Kingdom was just as fulfilling as the first, and well worth that ridiculous visa run to the Myanmar border. I met many more intriguing characters (including Swiss girl): an international campsite of fire dancers; a Bavarian guitarist who bills himself as a one-funny-man show; a moonshiner couple, and their notorious steel and copper still; a Thai baked potato sorceress self-styled as Shampoo, who can transform potatoes into irresistible drunk treats; an American expat who can transform ludicrous quantities of alcohol into bellowed rowdiness and the fastest dancing feet I’ve ever seen; a gorgeous Russian couple who perform on horseback for Cavalia; a German BASE jumper with a tattooed face and eyes poached with adrenaline; a Filipino ladyboy model with a taste for adventure and American ad slogans—there are more but I think I’ll stop here. Don’t want to water down the list.

I’m still working on the 2nd part of the Bangkok post. I had worried about losing details as time and travel progress, but the key moments seem to surface just fine. The delayed writing might help me spare you some of the tedious details, which you’ll probably appreciate. Anyway, the journals will be slow-going, and I’ll try to keep the status updates rolling.

A [not-so-]brief overview of month two in Thailand:

I raced the setting sun on a motorbike over a beautiful 160 kilometers of twisting hairpins through mountains and bamboo jungle, which was enough to earn a “you’re crazy, man” from the owner of a Ko Phangan hostel that I met along the way (if you’re wondering why this is significant, check out full moon parties—the dude has seen his fair share of craziness). I sweatingly swung fire poi, flew and was flown in an acro yoga class, and finally traversed an entire slackline in a field edged with bamboo bungalows at the Pai Circus School and Guesthouse. I camped under the stars for a week with a remnant of the Shambhala in Your Heart festivalites at a Japanese commune called Moon Village, where we bathed in rivers and waterfalls to pass the scorching day and made music, mantras, and moonshine to ward off the nighttime chill. I finally left the north on a rickety sleeper train bound for Bangkok. Though my stopover was graciously brief, I still managed to drop myself into a karaoke bar of food, beer, and thirteen Thai girls who sang for hours for a Swede’s going away party (and the 20 baht bills he was doling them). I dropped in on a golden old college friend during his performance at a Phuket bar crowded with English teaching expats..incidentally, this is also the first time I’ve been simultaneous kissed and muay thai kicked. A day later, we sleeplessly boarded a boat ferry for Ko Phi Phi, where I got my first taste of scaling Thailand’s beach-side limestone cliffs. On Phi Phi I also got my first taste of Thailand’s infamous beach parties. I actually remember most of the events, which include enumerating the uses of a large bucket—to justify that we could do more than drink copious amounts of alcohol from it..which is all we actually used it for—and taking breaks from sand-choked trance raves to jump through fiery rings and over fiery jump ropes. Once my liver stabilized, I escaped to the sabai paradise of Tonsai Bay and its dynamic throng of adrenaline-junkied climbers and BASE jumpers (and a respectable amount of suitcase touting gawkers). Here, I would engage in the Tonsai dream:

  1. Wake up, break the fast with a fresh tropical fruit smoothie, and then sweat through the scores of excellent climbing routes that rise from sand and sea along the bay. To send these routes, you must endure pumpy sequences of overhanging jugs, core your way along overhanging roofs, and even take forward superman falls of faith to distant hanging stalactites.
  2. When the sun and heat becomes unbearable, rinse in the ocean or the cold water shower of your bamboo bungalow and then find lunch and a shaded siesta at one of the open-air beach bars—an only-in-Tonsai question: which is your favorite bar nap spot? [Answer: Chillout Bar’s converted longtail boat.]
  3. When the sun graciously leaves the opposite side of the beach cliffs, head in that direction for more blissful limestone climbing.
  4. End the day by gorging on fresh seafood barbecued in tinfoil, and sipping cold drinks on the beach while you watch deft locals spin fire on slacklines and perform brilliant covers of Western classics.
  5. Spend your rest days lying on the beach, snorkeling or diving, getting a coconut oil massage, practicing slackline, playing guitar in a hammock, etc.

I carried out this routine for a blissful ten days with only two breaks: one, a quick trip to Ko Yao Noi, a chilled out island whose limestone cliffs are guarded by sea and the most sketchy motorbike approach over rutted dirt hills and turns; and two, a Deep Water Solo excursion. The latter was a glorious experience—riding a longtail boat out to climb the limestone karsts that rise straight out of the sea, and jumping from heights up to 30 meters into the warm Andaman Sea. My highest jump lasted about four seconds—I will never forget the gut-twisting experience of falling long enough to realize you’re still falling..and then still falling. Most people only get to experience such a drop sans protection in their dreams.

cliffDeep water solo—see more great photos from @tedhesser on Instagram.

My visa ended [again] on the 20th, and so that morning I braved a Malaysian Airlines plane for Kuala Lumpur (thoughts and condolences go out to MH370 flight and its family and friends). And here I am now, in a mall-choked modern city waiting for my Vietnam visa and catching up on my blog, finally. It’s been really nice to regain a sense of reality in a proper apartment with consistent WiFi, and worry about little more than replenishing a few shirts and replacing Alice’s strings. Thanks so much Kitty for hooking me up with your awesome wax therapist friend.

That’s all for now—catch y’all again soon! ~PWALLE

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